At first, Ryan Lachaine was in culture shock. Or a better term might be weather shock. “I grew up in Winnipeg,” the 42-year-old chef told me. “It can be minus forty-five there in the winter.” He didn’t miss the brutal cold when he moved to Houston—he followed his wife south in 2001—but he did miss his comfort food. “I couldn’t find it down here,” he says. So when he opened his own restaurant, he turned to his childhood for inspiration. Riel debuted in Houston in January, serving, among Lachaine’s Canadian favorites, classy versions of the homey borscht and pierogi cooked by his Ukrainian grandmother and mother. But childhood was only one touchstone. Rounding things out are dishes drawn from his travels: fried alligator from New Orleans, a tonkatsu-style pork cutlet from Hong Kong. Most importantly, there’s Gulf seafood galore. The menu is in effect a culinary Pilgrim’s Progress.
The setting is a former teahouse in which the small square windows have been replaced with floor-to-ceiling plate glass. From the sidewalk you can see everyone inside, talking and laughing. The decor is understated, with concrete floors, streamlined dark wood tables and chairs, and shapely pendant lamps. Even though the long room, which includes a bar and chef’s counter, can hold eighty people, it doesn’t feel that large. The menu is equally compact, with around twenty items that are mostly designed to share, so there’s lots of spearing of bites across the table.
If you’re curious to try foods Canadians find comforting, start with a couple of Lachaine’s meat dishes. He transforms a tourtière into an individual meat pie. “We use ground pork, mushrooms, and onions,” says Lachaine, “along with Christmas-y spices like cinnamon and cloves.” The pretty crimped crust is flaky and nicely browned from the oven. I liked the bright-red strawberry mustard sauce provided for dipping; sweet and tart flavors join up again in the accompanying pickled carrots and cauliflower, but they came off a little strident.
Lachaine’s pierogi are basically half-moon-shaped dumplings; filled with melted aged cheddar and fluffy sieved potatoes, they get a boil in butter-infused water and then a nice little sear on the plancha. After several pleasant but less than stunning bites, I concluded that pierogi may be one of those things best viewed through the rosy lens of nostalgia (like my mother’s meat loaf). I was an instant fan, however, of the accompanying hanger steak with a spiky horseradish crème fraîche (above).
The pork tonkatsu tartine is resolutely multiethnic, consisting of a fried pork cutlet balancing on a thick slice of brioche and anointed with a squiggle of kewpie mayo. I appreciated the homage to both chicken-fried steak and Texas toast, and I quite liked the homemade Bull-Dog sauce (the waiter described it as a Japanese-style barbecue sauce/ketchup). But there was so much going on that I was overwhelmed after three bites. The nibbles of fried gator, on the other hand, marinated in soy, ginger, and sesame oil and kicked up with ranch dressing, disappeared faster than buffalo wings.
Like many chefs these days, Lachaine worked in a lot of kitchens. To mention only some of his touchdowns, he spent time at the original Husk, in Charleston, and Herbsaint, in New Orleans (“Before that, I didn’t even know what chowchow was,” he admitted). He cooked in San Francisco at Coi (refined, minimalist) and in Los Angeles at Animal (lusty, meaty, daring). Then he crossed the Pacific to visit Yardbird, in Hong Kong. And he went to Vietnam. “I want to visit Europe one day,” he said longingly. But his most relevant training, after a culinary degree from the Art Institute of Houston, was at leading Houston restaurants Reef and Underbelly, where he took a deep dive into seafood.
As a result, things that swim, float, and paddle are abundant on Riel’s menu. An absolutely terrific starter is the crudo, hunks of red snapper in an oniony fennel soubise sided by both regular and blood orange and radish slices that look like tiny fuchsia parasols. The combination fish and fruit was so spot-on that I barely noticed that the critter was a tad past its prime. Everybody at the table liked the mangrove snapper in a delicate ham broth bolstered by a bounty of al dente black-eyed peas, even if the firm, steaklike fish was a bit overcooked. Bristling heads-on shrimp (pictured above), good though they were, were totally upstaged by their accompanying hot sauce, an earthy and irresistible concoction involving palm sugar and rice wine vinegar. But for all the appeal of certain seafood and meat dishes, my favorite thing on the menu was a vegetable: young carrots seductively roasted with cardamom and honey. Topped by fistfuls of homemade hazelnut powder, sided by dollops of intense uncultured yogurt, they basked in a puree of golden raisins and Aleppo peppers. Lachaine told me the flavor profile reminded him of peanut butter and jelly. I wouldn’t quarrel; I would only add “from heaven.”
Riel is no place to stick to a diet, so if you have room, by all means order dessert. Curiosity will likely steer you toward Lachaine’s take on Canada’s beloved Nanaimo bar, with its layers of flourless brownie, coconut cream cheese, and almonds. But the one you should screw up your courage for is his version of England’s sticky toffee pudding, because it’s outrageous. And totally captivating. Lachaine and pastry chef Alyce Garcia have injected pork blood into the toffee sauce and thatched the intensely sweet date cake with shavings of foie gras torchon. When I asked him why—as in “What were you thinking?”—he said, “Well, I wanted to make it more complex and less sweet.” I say—to quote Austin Powers—“Shagadelic, baby!”
The last time I talked to Lachaine was July 4, and he had taken the tourtière and borscht off the menu. “The weather’s too hot!” he said. But he promised he’d put them back on when the thermometer drops below seventy at night (a.k.a. winter in Houston). The menu doesn’t seem complete without those touchstones, and besides, his Texas customers seem to find them just as comforting as he does.
Riel | 1927 Fairview, Houston (832-831-9109). D Mon-Sat. $$-$$$